Nélida Nassar 02.05.2016
Jacques Maroun directs a rich subject for a psychosexual submission comedy. Lina Khoury and Gabriel Yammine adapted David Ives Broadway success “Venus in Fur”
“Venus.” Severin von Kusiemski as Badih Abou Chakra desires to be enslaved to a woman, he finds in the voluptuous, cruel and merciless Rita Hayek as Vanda von Dunajew.
Abou Chakra explains on his cell phone to his girlfriend Paola that he’s tired. Having supervised the audition of thirty-five aspiring actresses “dressed as sluts” for the play he intends to stage. When he hears a knock on the door, it’s Hayek who staggers into an open basement with iron columns, where for only set design (signed by Talar Mesrobian) there is a desk and a red divan covered in a white sheet. Hours late for her appointment, Hayek (previously seen in “High Heels”) strips down to her saucy black lingerie as she knows, she may have blown her chances at the role.
Who is this woman with a commoner verbal flow, unable to utter a coherent sentence without repeating at least once “really” or “cool”? Hayek is a crackpot that claims wanting the lead in Abou Chakra play. An adaptation of “Venus in Furs” the 1870 erotic cult novel by Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch gaining notoriety and a degree of immortality for its author and having coined the word “masochism.”
Come on! “Wanda, we are seeking someone a little different, you know?” exclaims Abou Chakra. She stops him short with a blunt rebuttal “Somebody who isn’t me,” she says as she pretends to leave in tears. Her moving and despairing monologue about the humiliating role of an actor drains him, he reluctantly allow her to act “only the first three pages of the play” that ends up being an audition of a lifetime. Yet when she pulls out a vintage dress from her commodious bag that seems to contain an entire wardrobe and starts acting, a transformation occurs: This trashy Venus becomes a poised and self-possessed young woman of great respectability. The two actors are engaged in a kind of theatrical duel with a risky bet for Hayek. She participates in a game of shifting mirrors with great complexities, interpreting several roles and slipping brilliantly and seamlessly from one to the other. From the actress Vanda coming for an audition, to the Vanda penned by the writer, to the imaginary Venus created by the director, to ultimately resuming the role of the imperious dominatrix while Abou Chakra becomes her submissive valet.
Same situation for Abou Chakra who is the writer, director, but also actor of his own plot. A man troubled by this woman, he no longer can discern whether she’s acting in his show or has become part of his real life. A man who is struggling with his real companion/girlfriend. A man succumbing to the temptation of cross gender. Abou Chakra is perfectly at ease in this sadomasochistic hide and seek game where all kind of obsessions, domination, games of submission, disguise, humor, burlesque and eroticism are being explored. He lectures Vanda convinced that “Venus” is “one of the great works of world literature” that Vanda bluntly asserts “basically it’s S-and-M porn.” They both spew curses while apologizing as well as very crude, funny jokes.
As the play unfolds, Hayek/Vanda dominates Abou Chacra/Kusiemski. Soon, he does not know with whom he is dealing: Is she the real Vanda imagined by the macho he is? Or is she the Vanda’s of the play, the actress who bewitches and subjugates him to the point of making him lose all his inhibitions? or yet the Vanda, which eventually take power over him, following a hair-raising erotic scene in the form of sado-masochist dance that ties him to a pole.
Perhaps the contrast between the beautiful and erotic Hayek, and Abou Chakra who is made to look as little sexy as possible, leave little room for any interplay of seduction. This imbalance in the couple make the duel itself feel unbalanced, leading Abou Chakra on a progressive path of self-destruction. A man caught up in the fatal woman’s grips.
Hayek attempts to negotiate an extraordinary role in this jubilant and anti machistic play while through Abou Chacra, Maroun gifts himself a stunning and intelligent reflection about the significance of acting. Where are the boundary between acting and reality the director appears to be asking? The play oscillates back and forth between these two elements: theatre and life, as so for him to exorcise what the mere existence could not do. It also explores the slippery power dynamics between men and women, directors and actors and those desiring pain and those more than delighted to administer it. The 95 minutes seems uncomfortably long becoming tedious due to the heavy colloquial Arabic of unnecessary blunt words and the likes emphasizing too much the level of profanity.
The play adaptation meets successfully all the three Aristotelian classical unities of action, time and place as well as an economy of means with two actors. Being familiar with both the Broadway’s performance and the Polanski movie, I congratulate Maroun for his daring and courage to direct and tackle an unconventional sexually loaded plot thus proposing subjects remaining taboo for Lebanon. While, it demonstrates that sexual subjects no matter how kinky they may be have their tolerant audience. My objection to the play is the extensive use of obscenity and hysteria as a way of combatting sexual bigotry and hypocrisy that plays into the adversary’s hands. If one is seeking the social acceptance of a psychosexual comedy about submission by an obsessive character, one might find more laughs in more eroticism and sarcasm as well as a nuanced acting and text adaptation, less amiss in translation.
Venus at Monnot Theatre
Wednesday March 9th 2016 to Thursday Mar 17th 2016
Rita Hayek: Vanda
Badih Abou Chakra: Badih and Kusiemski
Written by: David Ives
Adapted by: Lina Khoury & Gabriel Yammine
Directed by Jacques Maroun
Set Design: Talar Mesrobian
Lighting: Hagop Derghougassian
Costumes: Hass Idriss (Taylor made)